It takes a lot of patience to take the pickup truck buses. Thursday I went by tuk tuk to the South Bus Station eight km outside of Pakse to get a pickup truck bus to Champasak. I boarded the bus and waited—and waited and waited for the bus to fill. After almost three hours we left for Champasak. About an hour into the journey we were at the ever-present Mekong River, apparently waiting for a ferry. We had driven out onto a rough board platform on which there were six other smaller trucks waiting, too. There was a little blue hut beside the platform, flying several colorful flags.
But wait! We’re moving! This rough board platform WAS the ferry and the little blue hut was the wheelhouse on the ferry!
Across the river, we drove into tiny Champasak and I was let off. Most of the other passengers continued on. I walked to the Souchittra Guest House and got a room, and
then, climbing some steps to a wooden verandah I settled into a huge wooden chair. I had a gorgeous view of the now quite wide Mekong. Since only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, I put off exploring the town until later in the day
when it was cooler.
The big attraction to this pretty little town is Wat Phu which I visited by tuk tuk (8 km) the next day. Parts of the ruins date from the Chenla kingdom (6th to 8th century) and some to Angkor Wat (9th to 11th C.)
The carvings on the lintels picture Hindu gods (Shiva and Parvati sitting on Nandi, the bull). While this is no Angkor Wat—indeed it’s barely a country cousin—yet there was a certain ‘atmosphere’ with a long promenade leading to two large worship pavilions, always going up, up, up toward the mountain behind the complex.
The mountain is an integral part of the effect—and the whole place evoked mystery and awe. Ah—art as politics! (The powers that be even control the mountains!) Even today there were many items of worship (candles, incense, sticky rice, fruit) placed in front of a commanding Khmer statue by the locals, even though they are all Buddhists.
One morning on my early walk I met many people (almost all women) who were bringing food to a wat that had been gonging its bell. Passing by later, I peeked in and saw them clustered around spreads of food, part of which they had brought for the monks and part of which they were eating.
The next morning I hired a boat to take me (halfway) across the Mekong to an island called Den Daeng. It’s about eight km by three km and has four tiny villages on it. The boat was a shallow canoe but the Mekong was still so even without life jackets, we made it in good stead.
I walked quite a ways toward the other end of the island, interacting with the locals as I went. A few of the young men had learned a bit of English and were eager to practice it. One man was shredding tobacco leaves which a woman was carefully spreading out on a mat to dry. The island was so simple and clean and quiet—it seemed like paradise, and the people were so friendly. But who knows what troubles they may have.
A few days later I thought I’d try something a little more adventuresome. The Lonely Planet described elephant watching and riding in two places near each other, Ben Phatpho and Kiet Ngong. The latter seemed the best, but there was no guesthouse there. Well I decided to take my chances with a home stay.
The morning I was going to leave, I had breakfast with a German and I told him I was planning to go to Kiet Ngong in spite of there being no guesthouse there. He said that I had old information and that an Italian/Lao couple had started an ecolodge there. He had their phone number (which he gave to me) and tried to call them for me, but there was no answer. (Never mind that it was 6:30 AM!)
So I set out, flagging down a pickup truck/bus going to Pakse, with which I figured I could get across the Mekong on the ferry and then up to highway 13. There I’d get off and try to head south. It was difficult to communicate this to the driver but eventually I think he understood me, and I boarded.
Upon getting off at highway 13, I saw a bus headed south. Again I tried to communicate that I was going only to Ban Thang Beng where I would get off and get a bus (?) to Kiet
Ngong. He understood and let me off as promised. There I gestured to a group of girls, asking if there were a bus to Kiet Ngong and they indicated by pointing to their watches that it would come at 2:00. It was 8:30 AM now! Then I asked by gesture if I could use a phone and that I would pay. One girl produced a cell phone (am I the only person in the WORLD that doesn’t have one?) and dialed for me and voila—Massino (the Italian) of the Kingfisher Ecolodge answered.
In the meantime, a young woman said something about ‘motorcycle’ and as we clarified, by gestures and repeating ‘motorcycle’ many times, and finding out the price and saying ‘Kiet Ngong’ many times, it turned out that she would take me to the ecolodge for 30,000 kip ($3.20) on her motorbike. As I spoke to Massimo (with great difficulty as the signal came and went) he said he was sorry but he couldn’t pick me up as his truck had gone to Pakse. I told him to never mind as I would come by motorbike. The young woman went off and got her husband who drove me with full pack on my back and smaller daypack on the front of me, to Kiet Ngong and the Kingfisher Ecolodge, helmetless and over a road with lots of ruts, loose gravel and dust. I held my breath every time we met an oncoming car or bus, but we made it there safely. As we went through the village of Kiet Ngong, we met five elephants—those magnificent, huge, wonderful beasts—being driven by their mahouts.
The Kingfisher Ecolodge was all tranquility and peace, and as I was shown to my cabin, I could see an elephant grazing in the pasture in front of my door, along with lots of egrets and some cattle. In the afternoon I explored the village, and the area around the ecolodge with its fishpond where they raise tilapia fish for eating.
The next morning I had my elephant ride! I walked to the village where they had built a tower with a stairway from which I could step on the elephant’s back and ease myself down into a two person basket seat with a nice cushion. The mahout sat on the elephant’s head/neck with his feet giving directions by poking them into the area behind the elephant’s ears. As we walked, the elephant kept flicking his right ear against my right foot—I think he was inviting me to scratch it with my shoe, which I did.
We climbed up the high Asa hill which has an archeological ruin on top but nobody seems to know its origin. No matter, it was a perfect morning, with blue, blue sky, birds singing, the lovely trees all around, flowers blooming, and I was KING OF THE WORLD on the back of that elephant!
On the way back, the mahout gestured for me to move over, as he would join me on the basket seat. Seated alongside me, he gave the elephant directions with his foot on the top of the elephant’s head. The elephant’s head was sparsely covered with black hairs about two inches long that stuck straight out.
The info at the ecolodge said that there are only about 30,000 Asian (Indian) elephants left in the world as their habitat is shrinking fast. This national preserve is attempting to protect and sustain the few that are in the park.
I was promised that a truck/bus would come to the lodge this morning at 8:00 AM, and so it did. I joined the many locals and a couple of tourists and got off at highway 13 again, heading further south to the island of Don Khong, where I am now, in the Phoukhong Guesthouse in the town of Muang Khong. The island is in the middle of the Mekong River, of course. I was surprised to find internet here, but here it is!